Derion Kendrick's Unusual Clemson Career Ends With Potential Unreached

If Derion Kendrick is to make it to the NFL, it won't come via a direct route from Clemson as the senior cornerback's sometimes bizarre and confusing career abruptly ended.
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People tend to remember a player by the last image they have of them. 

That does not bode well for the legacy left behind by Derion Kendrick, a senior cornerback who left the Clemson football team, was removed from the roster Sunday and is likely to enter the NCAA transfer portal to complete his playing career.

The Rock Hill, S.C., native was burned repeatedly in the Tigers' 49-28 loss to Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl on Jan. 1. Buckeyes QB Justin Fields threw for 385 yards with 132 going to receiver Chris Olave, much at the expense of Kendrick. He struggled to keep up with OSU's speed and route running. 

Regardless, Kendrick's decision to return to Clemson for the 2021 season instead of entering the NFL draft was still mostly welcomed. After all, he had played over 1,000 snaps at cornerback the last two seasons, earning multiple All-ACC honors as a starter after transitioning from receiver. 

That's not something that happens often, and while Kendrick showed he had areas to improve upon both in coverage and tackling to become a true lockdown option, he still gave the Tigers a talented anchor at one of the most key positions in college football. Much of his issues felt correctable, including his maturity. 

His loss will be felt, and why he's no longer a member of Dabo Swinney's program will be addressed Monday when the head coach speaks to the media.

In the meantime, a look back at Kendrick's unusual, sometimes bizarre and confusing career is warranted. There was so much to like about his game, for it to end this way leaves many open questions. 

A player known by many as simply "DK" came to Tiger Town as a highly-regarded offensive prospect. He won a state title with South Pointe High School every season he played. Kendrick was a star quarterback and receiver during his time with the Stallions. That earned him five-star status as a recruit, a top-30 spot nationally in the 2018 class and an invite as a receiver to the U.S. Army All-American Game. 

Former Clemson co-offensive coordinator/receivers coach Jeff Scott was able to keep Kendrick from going down the road to South Carolina, where many Rock Hill talents had traveled to over the last decade or so. But Scott would only work with Kendrick for one season, when Kendrick showed offensive potential with 240 receiving yards on 15 catches and 41 rushing yards in 2019. 

The following spring, Brent Venables was low on defensive backs in practice. He needed an extra body, so Kendrick, who had played some defense in high school, said he'd help out. It was immediately clear to the coaches that this wasn't just a fill-in, emergency situation. 

Kendrick could cover and already had excellent ball skills. He was raw, but he was one of the better DBs opposite future first-round draft pick A.J. Terrell. So the move became permanent before spring ball was even over. Kendrick saw it as an opportunity to get more playing time instead of battling for receptions with Justyn Ross and Tee Higgins. 

It was the right move. As Terrell showed, playing the No. 1 corner role for Clemson gets you to the NFL in a hurry, and Kendrick immediately became a starter, recording two interceptions and breaking up six passes in his first season on defense, earning second-team All-ACC honors. 

Heading into 2020, bigger things were expected. Kendrick was now the top dog at corner and one of the voices of the defense. He had it all: superb athleticism, experience and plenty of moxie to play the position. 

But he didn't make the trip to Wake Forest in Clemson's 2020 season opener during a pandemic year. It wasn't because of COVID-19 or an existing injury, and Swinney had little to say about it. 

When Kendrick didn't start against The Citadel the next week, but entered the game on the second play, it was obvious there was likely some sort of disciplinary situation unfolding. 

"I wouldn't call it discipline," Swinney said after The Citadel game. "I would just call it love, just loving him up. I think discipline is the greatest form of love. DK's a great kid, but we want him to be accountable in every area, academics, tutors, study hall, you name it. All of it. It all matters.

"He got himself in a little bit of a hole this summer, but he's dug himself out and he's coming on." 

A week later, Venables described Kendrick's status as "everything's good" and said his cornerback wasn't in the "doghouse."

Everything seemed fine for the next two weeks as Kendrick performed well against Virginia and Miami, looking like the No. 1 guy again. But he didn't play in Clemson's sixth game of the season against Syracuse. Kendrick was listed as out for "precautionary" reasons, but based on his previous issues with Swinney, there was much speculation. 

He was back on the field the next two weeks, but then was held out of the Pitt game, despite dressing in uniform, for disciplinary reasons. That's when Swinney coined a new phrase for what amounts to being in the doghouse. 

"Sometimes people might say you're in the doghouse. I like to say he's in the love shack," Swinney said. "Just a little team discipline with him and DK's actually one of my favorites. The Bible says the great the greatest form of discipline is love. So, just put him in the love shack this weekend, and hopefully, he'll respond the right way. I loved his attitude today."

It seemed to work. Kendrick responded with a defensive touchdown against Virginia Tech, followed by four tackles and a sack in the ACC Championship Game win over Notre Dame. 

Then he got torched by Ohio State in the Sugar Bowl, and a promising Clemson career came to an abrupt end this weekend. Kendrick had first-round NFL potential, even though it's unlikely that the NFL draft advisory board thought so based on his decision to return for Clemson for his senior season. 

However, the talent is there, and with the coaching staff open to his return, it appeared they felt like he was worth keeping for another season. Now, if he's ever to make it to the pros, it won't be a direct route from Tiger Town. 

Instead, Kendrick's career will likely be remembered as one that just didn't quite live up to its full potential, something that hasn't happened often among Swinney's top recruits.